The French director Francois Ozon keeps hope on the dimmest of simmers in "Frantz," his monochromatic, monotone and occasionally monotonous film about loss and longing in the wake of World War I.
The war has just ended, and Germany is reeling. Anna (the disarming Paula Beer), a young German with a mournful look, clacks her heels across the cobblestone streets of a small German town. She steps into a shop, picks up a pot of flowers and heads to the empty grave of her fiancé, whose body, like so many of the town's sons, rots in some anonymous ditch in France.
But Anna notices something about the grave: It contains fresh flowers, which she didn't leave. Their source becomes a subject of fascination for her and for her fiancé's grief-stricken parents, who treat her like their own daughter. Soon we meet the man: a tall stack of nerves and regret named Adrien Rivoire (the magnetic Pierre Niney), who comes spinning stories about his friendship with the dead soldier that carry a strange whiff of desperation.
Ozon's rendering of a woebegone German town collectively mourning the loss of its young men is affecting. It looks like a particularly well-constructed Hollywood set, with desolate streets winding past pristine shop windows and groups of bitter old men drinking beer in the bars of empty hotels.
There is no minor-key score underneath the desolation, but the sense of loss and mourning is almost overwhelming: When Anna inquires of a gravedigger about the person who visited Frantz's grave just before her arrival, he tells her that it was a man from France and then spits on the ground with real malice.
After this compelling introduction, and the introduction of Adrien, the mood begins to muddy. Ozon and his cinematographer Pascal Marti shift from color to black-and-white and back again as the emotional temperature of its central characters changes, but the shift is almost always too abrupt in its effect, like turning on your high-beams in a pitch-black garage.
Performances from Anna's caretakers Magda and Hans Hoffmeister (Marie Gruber and Ernst Stotzner) are earnest to the point of distraction, and Ozon's lingering on their faces doesn't help matters.
Even so, the relationship between Anna and Adrien, as rendered by Beer and Niney, is compelling. It's clear to viewers, though perhaps not to Anna, that something is off about Adrien's recollections about Frantz. He hesitates before answering questions about him. Clearly he is harboring a secret, and the cleverness of Ozon's construction is that it is not the secret that first occurs to us.
The film's first act drags on too long, so that by the time its fascinating third act arrives, we are slightly numbed by the over-earnestness of the whole affair. That being said, Ozon's take on postwar Paris, to which Anna absconds in search of Adrien, is often charming.
His neatest trick is to turn the most famous scene in "Casablanca," in which Frenchman and Germans sing dueling versions of their patriotic songs in Rick's Café, on its head. In Ozon's version, the Germans' performance of "Die Wacht am Rhein" is a sad dirge sung by wound-licking pensioners, and "La Marseillaise" is a bone-chilling evocation of fanatical nationalism. In the context of France's coming election, this commentary could not be better timed.
For that reason, as well as for alluring performances from the leads that bring the intense longing and guilt of their characters to life, "Frantz" is suited for the moment. Not perfect, by a long shot, but right for the times.
2.5 stars (out of four)
Starring: Pierre Niney, Paula Beer, Ernst Stotzner, Marie Gruber, Johann von Bulow
Director: Francois Ozon
Running time: 113 minutes
Rated: PG-13 for thematic elements including violence
The lowdown: A German woman mourns the loss of her fiancé on the battlefields of World War I, until a mysterious Frenchman arrives to both deepen and alleviate her suffering. In French and German with subtitles.